‘There’s no racism in Argentina’

Ali DepskyBy Ali Depsky      September 18, 2020

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‘There’s no racism in Argentina’
Left: Juan Bautista Cabral; Middle: Cabral depicted as white; Right: María Remedios del Valle, a crucial figure known as La Madre de la Patria, was left out of history books for her race and gender. Source: Wikipedia
Following the murder of George Floyd, Ali Depsky took a deep dive into systemic racism and police brutality in Argentina while drawing parallels with the United States.
During a 1996 trip to the United States, then Argentine President Carlos Menem was asked about his country’s Black population and answered, “In Argentina there are no Black people; that’s Brazil’s problem.” In January 2018, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, then President Mauricio Macri echoed a similar sentiment, “I think the association between Mercosur and the European Union is natural because in South America we are all descendants of Europeans.” Today this aspect of Argentina’s national identity is visible in the public’s reaction to the worldwide protest movements following the death of George Floyd. While much of Argentina’s participation in the collective outcry has taken place online due to strict COVID-19 lockdown measures, a small march took place in downtown Buenos Aires. Solidarity demonstrations in many countries demanded justice, not only for Floyd but also for victims of similar racialized killings and abuses within their own borders, such as in France’s march for Adama Traoré, or Brazil’s for João Pedro Matos Pinto. However, Argentina’s initial march focused mostly on the United States, with #justiceforgeorgefloyd, and #fueratrump (#TrumpOut) as the main rallying cries, with less critical introspection regarding systemic racism and police brutality within the country. That said, Pagina12, one of Argentina’s largest newspapers, ran a story in June featuring a photo of an Argentine policeman with a Senegalese man in a chokehold, entitled, “I can’t breathe in Argentina.” Similar articles and journalistic pieces have come out, though mostly in smaller media outlets and social media. Overall, the topic has been notably less present in the popular discourse than in many other countries. One might be tempted to attribute Argentina’s relatively tepid reaction to its stereotype as an all-white, or homogenous country. It is not uncommon to hear people in Argentina voice the idea that, “We don’t have racism, because we don’t have Black people,” or because, “We are all one race.” It may, therefore, come as a surprise to learn that Argentina once had a very visible Black population. In censuses taken throughout 1778 to 1810, Buenos Aires was reportedly 30 percent Black and in some interior regions of the country the proportion was close to 60 percent. By the census of 1887, however, the percentage of Black residents in Buenos Aires had diminished to just 1.8 percent, and by 1895 was reportedly zero. So, what happened?
In Argentina, it’s not uncommon for people to think that the slave trade was relatively light or that Afro-descendants were all killed in the wars for independence, or during disease outbreaks in the mid-nineteenth century. While there are elements of truth to these ideas, they each only tell part of the story.

In fact, Argentina underwent an ideological and systematic process called blanqueamiento to erase non-white people from its landscape and population. Afro-descended and Indigenous people who built the country and created much of Argentinean culture were written out of its history by design. Argentinian intellectual leaders in the early 20th century, such as Domingo Sarmiento, believed that eliminating non-white “primitive” people was the required path to a modern and powerful nation. At that time, this nation-building ideology predicated on white supremacy was present throughout the Americas, but Argentina could be said to have been the most successful in creating what came to be thought of as a European nation in the Americas. They achieved this by killing off and displacing much of the Indigenous population, even sending ambassadors to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States to study their “methods of Indian removal,’’ and through the “disappearance” of their Afro-population.
Photos from the march in Buenos Aires after the murder of George Floyd. Posted on Twitter
Between 1750 and 1810, hundreds of thousands of Africans were trafficked to Argentina through Buenos Aires. The city grew its wealth and power through slave labor. During and after slavery, Africans and Afro descendants played an important role in the politics and culture of the region. They fought extensively in Argentine wars of the 19th century, including the wars for independence in which slaves were offered their freedom for five years as soldiers, though they were seldom able to stay alive long enough to claim it, as they were put on the front lines in battles.

In contrast to the United States, which segregated and subjugated the newly freed Black population, Argentina had no laws which legally segregated the Black communities. That said, while Sarmiento was president, he was widely reported to have carried out a “covert genocide” of Black communities, relegating them to slums with poor city services and high mortality rates, creating numerous laws which made it easy to arrest them in great numbers, and conscripting them into wars. During the 1871 yellow fever epidemic, it is reported that the army was deployed to trap Black communities in their poor neighborhoods and keep them out of the north of Buenos Aires where rich white people fled to escape the pandemic. They were buried in mass graves.

Argentine leaders sought to eliminate the remaining “blackness” in its population through encouraging intermixing and European immigration. The whitening of the population was seen generally as positive in the popular culture, and in 1905, Juan José Soiza Reilly wrote in the Argentine magazine Caras y Caretas, “The [Black] race is losing in the mixture its primitive color. It becomes gray. It dissolves. It lightens. An African tree is producing Caucasian flowers.”

Though the Indigenous and Afro communities were never completely wiped out, the state began an aggressive campaign of whitewashing in history books and popular consciousness. The extent to which this was done becomes evident once you begin to examine the African and Indigenous influence on Argentine culture hidden just beneath the surface. Gauchos, the famous Argentinian cowboys, who often had Indigenous and or Black heritage, began to be depicted as white. Even the first president of Argentina, Bernardino Rivadavia, was part black and derogatorily called Doctor Chocolate by his detractors. Paintings of Tango, a dance originated by African slaves, were re-done with only white dancers, and famous battles, some of which were fought by half-Black battalions, were depicted with all white soldiers.
A painting by Argentine artist, Daniel Santoro, highlighting the racist overtones of anti-Peronist rhetoric
In addition to the shrinking population and the subsequent whitewashing, this disappearance was fast-tracked by the creation of new racial categories on the census, such as trigueño (wheat-colored) or pardo, by which people could claim to escape the label of Negro.

The success of this racial erasure and whitening, is expressed in the way race tends to be written out of the equation today in Argentina. There is a tendency to see things only in terms of classism which hides the elements of racism also present. The word, “Negro,” today doesn’t refer as much to someone’s skin color but more to one’s place in society or class. Calling someone negro de mierda, a common insult, doesn’t necessarily mean they are of Afro origin but rather that they are of a low or otherwise marginal class. It is popularly used in conservative discourses to describe undesirable behavior, generally directed at poor people.

In Argentina, the word, “Negro,” today doesn’t refer as much to someone’s skin color but more to one’s place in society or class.

As Alejandro Mamaní, founder of the anti-racism collective Identidad Marron explains, “When someone in Argentina closes his eyes and thinks of who they are referring to when someone says negro de mierda (a pejorative), the majority of the time they are not talking about a Black person, they are thinking about a person with Indigenous features, but who lives in an urban context, in a villa.” For this reason, the term negras villeras is also a common equivalent to negros de mierda. When people visit the country and are shocked by this usage of the word, “negro,” they are reassured, “not negro as in skin color, but negro inside,” or negro de alma (black of soul) which can be seen as a sort of deeper racism, with the idea of blackness as being something inherently negative. People in younger generations are now calling out the implicit racism in this idea. 
During the rise of Juan Peron, an iconic populist leader who first came to power in 1944, his supporter base of largely poor (and often darker-skinned) people flocked to the cities in the 1940’s, where they were pejoratively referred to by local elites as cabecitas negras, and later as negro Peronistas. Thus, the word continued to evolve and lost its context and original meaning, becoming a symbol of political identity and social class. Eventually the word “negro” was re-claimed as a term of affection, even by white people, and is now used to proudly identify one’s self as belonging to the popular classes fighting against social inequality.

This identification with the poor black worker, emblematic of Peronism, along with their position as tercermundistas [third world], and having been victims of devastating neo-colonization by the United States, led Argentina to develop a culture in which many people tend to see their struggle as a collective one, along with the Black people in the United States and other marginalized people around the world. 

This tendency to flatten everything into a collective struggle is being challenged by some activists who argue that it is imperative to also interrogate the intersectionality within Argentine culture. Some decolonial-feminist organizations are shining a spotlight on what they perceive of as a lack of race and class consciousness within the feminist movement in Argentina.

At a recent women’s march, some activists responded somewhat tongue-in-cheek to the common slogan “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn,” with their own version: “We are the daughters of the maids you wouldn’t let come [to the march].” Housekeepers in Buenos Aires are often women with Indigenous ancestry from the interior of the country or from neighboring countries such as Bolivia and Paraguay.

An interesting spotlight was put on the particularities of this intersection of identities in a feud in 2018 between an Argentinean musician and a music venue led by Black trans women in France. The venue, La Mutinerie, decided to cancel the Argentinian artist’s concert because they felt troubled by what they perceived as cultural appropriation in her work, and replaced it with a debate on the subject. The criticisms were aimed at certain specific lines in her song where she says, “I love Black women” in a song/video which features an exoticized and sexualized Afro-Latin woman, her use of the artist’s name, “Chocolate Remix,” and at her assertion of being a pioneer of lesbian reggaeton, which they claimed ignored the Afro-origins of reggaeton. The musician, whose real name is Romina Bernardo, wrote an angry response to her cancellation which then sparked an online debate. 

Bernardo expressed that it seemed to her an inherent contradiction for anyone from France, “the peak of colonization and imperialism,” to be directing criticisms about cultural appropriation. She writes, “I celebrate that the voices of black people are being heard and I fully support the fight against racism. However, I deeply regret the way in which the voice of Latin migrants, racialized too, are still not being heard, and ending up being silenced behind ignorance of reality and suppressed under a lecture on the hierarchy of oppressions, which doesn’t take into account their transversality. The result: two oppressed groups facing off and devaluing their shared struggle in a white French space.” Her response was criticized as misunderstanding the role that race plays including in countries such as France. 

Afro-Cuban rap artist Odaymar Pasa Kruda, who participated in the debate, weighed in, “They silenced us by saying we were talking for black Latin people and that queer black women and trans people were more privileged than them because of being French. This is obvious proof that they have no idea what cultural appropriation, racism, colorism, and negrophobia are and how they work. How can a black woman or a trans person be more racially privileged than anyone else in the world?”

Mexican journalist and rapper Fabian Villegas also weighed in, writing, “From rock to jazz, from jazz to tango, and from tango to flamenco, all these, just to mention a few examples, have been built on structures and practices of appropriation, theft, dispossession, eviction, and invisibility of racialized groups and from their own production and cultural experience…. Behind you there was an immense line of talented musicians, but the industry and colonialism silences them, makes them invisible or anonymous. Because your whiteness makes that same musical practice fresh and cool, it takes away the dust and the stink.”

Recently, a similar dispute broke out on Twitter, sparking with certain Argentinians criticizing the practice of U.S.-born Latinos calling themselves Latinos, since “they don’t know the challenges associated with being born and living in Latin America.”
Still from Chocolate Remix’s Music Video / Bernardo “Chocolate Remix” herself.
Blackface recently aired on a popular (often racist/sexist) TV program. The appearance generated outrage online but did not get much coverage or criticism in mainstream news.
A Black Puerto Rican woman from the United States responded with an incendiary tweet, posting that Argentines should “stop talking for all of Latin America,” since they are “mostly white and not even mestizos.” The exchange sparked a heated debate that turned the #argentinians and #yankees hashtags into a trending topic. Many users responded that it was racist to call them white, or that calling them white somehow meant they were saying they were not “Latino” (with many maps showing where Argentina is in the world). Others noted that they were imperialistically imposing their U.S.-based ideas of race that they do not apply in Argentina, while others pointed out that Argentina is “whitewashed, not white.”

Another Latina woman from the U.S. chimed in: “You have to make an effort to skip the struggles, and stories of black and Indigenous people in Lat Am to get mad at a mixed Black woman in the United States who says you are white. I can’t imagine how maddening it is to constantly hear that racial struggles are ‘gringo things.’” An Argentinian replied, “How many dictatorships have you lived through?”
The debate was typical of Twitter, riddled with take-downs and memes, but opened an interesting discussion on the challenges of one-size fits all anti-racist rhetoric as well as on the way that many Argentines with European heritage see their own whiteness.

Black visitors to Buenos Aires recount stories of people trying to touch their hair and of having random people asking to take pictures with them. Whereas people with more Indigenous features are often looked down upon, today Black people often are an object of curiosity, or exotic, depending on the context. 

Arielle Carin Knight, a Black student from the U.S. who lived in Buenos Aires in 2013 and wrote a thesis about the local Afro-erasure explains, “The notion that Black people are invisible in Argentina is a contradictory assertion. They are invisible to the extent that they are not recognized as parts of the Argentine identity. However at the interpersonal level, Black subjects garner much attention for their “rarity.” I can recall countless experiences of riding the bus in Buenos Aires and being surveyed from head to toe. It was not uncommon to hear someone audibly whisper, “mira la morocha” (“Look at the brown girl”). Afro-Colombian journalist, Lisa Maria Montaño Ortiz describes a similar experience in coming to Argentina for the first time: “They start to question you, why is your hair like that? And why is your mouth like that, are your lips natural? And your nose is like that naturally? They are questions that seem illogical in the 21st century.” 

In her thesis, Knight also describes an experience attending a party advertised by an online magazine for Black cultural events in Buenos Aires, called “Revista Quilombo.” The event wasn’t quite what she expected, writing, “The crowd was filled with hip young white Argentines, a number of whom I observed to be wearing kente cloth-printed shirts and other African-inspired attire. A group of people had formed a small drum circle in one corner and there was an outdoor patio where a film about Afro-Bolivian drum-making was being projected on a large white wall. I also quickly noticed that I was again the only brown person in the room, which at that point was less surprising to me then the barrage of undifferentiated displays of Black culture.”  

Black people who grew up in Argentina often express feelings of isolation and otherness. The “foreignization” of Afro-Argentines is common. People tend not to assume, or at times even believe they are actually Argentinian. Maria Lamadrid, the founder of AfricaVive, was famously detained at the Ezeiza airport on her way to Panama in 2001, where they wouldn’t let her board the plane with her Argentine passport because they were convinced it was fake, because “There are no Black Argentines.” Afro-argentine activist Louis Yupanqui recently hosted an Instagram Q&A, asking people about their experiences with racism in Argentina. Among the answers she received were, “My teacher made me show her my DNI to prove I was actually from Argentina.” 

Evelina Vargas from Salta, who has partial Indigenous ancestry common to those from northern regions, moved to Buenos Aires to attend graduate school studying human rights and was surprised to find that many people didn’t believe she was from Argentina. Vargas says that moving to the capital city made her recognize the cultural hegemony that Buenos Aires holds over the rest of the country, best exemplified by the collective tendency to assume all Argentinians fit the profile of a European-looking person from Buenos Aires. This assumption of European immigrant ancestry is expressed in even the most subtle ways. For example, each province in the country has its own coat of arms, and that of Buenos Aires Capital contains an image of two colonial ships.

She talks about how her parents in Salta tended to deny their Indigenous roots and called themselves white, thereby rejecting any connection to that culture. Distancing from their roots was not done solely due to shame of association with the common negative stereotypes of “lazy, dirty, slow, Indigenous people,” but also as a way to survive and avoid police violence. To be white was to be safe.
Fuente: Indentidad Marron
She describes how the negative associations with being Indigenous or black would manifest in countless daily occurrences. People would say, “you should change your hair, you look Indigenous” or “you should stay out of the sun or so you don’t get darker.” She recalls, “My mom would get mad when people would call me negra, she would always tell me, ‘but you aren’t black you’re brown.’”

Despite the historical erasure and intense pressure for non-White people to whiten, a parallel paradoxical phenomenon has arisen in which Argentines with European ancestry often don’t see themselves as white. Some [pale-skinned] Argentines tell me that it took leaving the country to recognize people’s perception of their whiteness. One friend remarked how it came as a shock to her to visit Colombia and be referred to as Gringa.

A seemingly progressive update to the national identity as a “country of Europeans” has developed, promoting the idea that “we are all a mixture.” This is partially true. One genetic study in 2015 showed that though 80% of Argentina had European ancestry, 10% had some African ancestry, and 30% some Indigenous ancestry (the study seems to leave out other ethnicities such as Arabe or Asian). However, this idea veers into the territory of “I don’t see race,” and tends to ignore and erase the experience and reality faced by racialized people in the country today, along with ignoring the historical conditions that led to high levels of poverty in such communities.
The denial of the existence of racism, is a chief characteristic of how racism presents itself in Argentina, something which makes it all the harder to combat. While Argentine President Carlos Menem’s quote about Black people being “Brazil’s problem” is now widely recognized as reprehensible, today some white Argentines often end up echoing a similar sentiment: “We don’t have racism here; that’s the United States’ problem.” 

Mirta Alzugaray, Afro-descendant activist and academic from Santa Fe explains, “The African presence in the United States was made more visible by showing the world how the Americans segregated the Black population. They created “whites-only spaces.” They put them in ghettos. Conversely in Argentina, the mixing of the races is so common that Black people don’t always have a darker skin tone, so they believe that in this country we aren’t racist. If there is no one to racialize here (I say this ironically), there’s no racism. So, if we don’t visiblize the [Afro] presence, then racism isn’t visibilized. 

In 2019, to commemorate the ‘’Day of the Afro-Argentine” a popular conservative-leaning television program, The Intratables, invited a panel of Black guests and aimed to answer the question “Are we racist?”  One guest, Haitian immigrant Nicanor F. Laurent who arrived in Argentina in the 90’s to study law, was very outspoken about his experience with what he perceives as a glass ceiling for Black people in Argentina. He remarked to the panel, “Actually, I think it’s very infantile to argue about whether Argentina is racist or not. Obviously, it’s racist. In one of the first times I came on TV here, I said, ‘If Argentina isn’t racist, then Maradona isn’t a football player.’ Obviously, it is. I’ll tell you, I have beside me (Lisa Maria) a young woman who I consider very capable. I think that if Argentina wasn’t racist, for example, this young woman next to me would be working in television, hosting or being a panelist.”

A white panelist countered that perhaps his trouble getting job offers has had more to do with his less than perfect Spanish than anything else. Laurent replied, “If I take my time, and if I get rid of the other nine languages that I speak, I speak better than you.” 
Laurent went on to explain his perspective, “The problem is that, with other countries, they know that the problem is there and the society, the media, the government, the state, act in some way to combat the problem. What bothers me about Argentina is the level of negation of the problem.” 

This denial of race and racism has insidious effects. If the problem isn’t measured, it’s as though it doesn’t exist, and it can’t be addressed. Racialized people are disproportionally more likely to be killed or brutalized by police with a long list of such cases just since the quarantine has been put in place. 

A friend recounted a time she worked in Tucumán, in the north of Argentina, with a group of kids who had one white friend whom they called “el polaco.” They always sent him out on errands because they knew he would be safe from being hassled by the police. Even though they were only 13 or 14 at the time, they understood these survival strategies. 

As a colonial state, many systemic effects remain of the white supremacy on which the country was built, and used to justify colonization, slavery, and genocide. As the country takes steps  to recognize its Afro and Indigenous populations and roots, activists continue to fight for recognition: for the real history of Argentina to be taught in schools, and for statistics to be generated to accurately measure the country’s Afro and Indigenous populations and their socioeconomic position, such that legal measures can be taken to address the issues they face.

Ali Depsky was born and raised in Los Angeles and is now based in Buenos Aires. She has a background in science and journalism and currently works as a freelance designer and at a local data journalism nonprofit.
Ali Depsky
      September 18, 2020

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